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Hard-Hit Santa Cruz County Cleans Up From One Storm While Preparing for the Next

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A view of damaged colorful houses along the shores of the river with a bridge in Capitola.
In an aerial view, damage from a powerful storm is visible on Jan. 6, 2023, in Capitola, Santa Cruz County. A powerful storm pounded the West Coast this week, uprooting trees and cutting power for tens of thousands on the heels of record rainfall over the weekend. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A series of atmospheric rivers has caused storm damage to infrastructure throughout Santa Cruz County. On Thursday, the wharf in Capitola was broken in half by a powerful storm surge. Currently over 5,000 people remain without power, and initial damage estimates from the storm are over $20 million. This all comes as another powerful storm is set to make landfall on Monday.

KQED's Natalia Navarro spoke with Dave Reid, director of the Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience, about the county’s efforts both to prepare for the next storms and clean up after the last one.

This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Natalia Navarro: So Dave, we’re hearing that the damage in Santa Cruz County is really countywide. Can you give us an idea of the kinds of damage we are seeing and who it’s affecting?

Dave Reid: It’s a profound impact across our county. In our mountainous regions we’re seeing landslides and slope failures impacting our county-maintained road network as well as damaging homes and other critical infrastructure. Along our rivers and creeks and drainages, we’ve experienced flooding in our Soquel businesses and residences in mid-county and south county. And a lot of people saw on social media the power and impact of our ocean along our coastline. So it’s really a widespread impact from these storms over the last week.

Is the county spending more resources right now cleaning up from the last storm, or preparing for the next?

There’s a balance there. What we’re trying to do in the cleanup and preparation side is to make sure to the best of our ability that our natural drainage systems and our engineered stormwater systems are clear and ready to try and take this next storm. So we’re trying to remove woody debris that may cause more harm or damage to the flooding potential. We’re trying to clear our drainage infrastructure so that our storm drains and culverts are clear. And we are trying to get out when we can to assess current damages to our community members ahead of this next storm.

A bulldozer in a flood battered neighborhood removes debris.
A bulldozer begins clearing debris from Capitola Village after massive waves pushed seawater and debris down the street, damaging bars and restaurants along Esplanade, in Capitola on Jan. 5, 2023. (Dai Sugano/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

One area of concern is the Pajaro River, on the border with Monterey County. Could you talk about what you’ll be watching for, and what steps you will take if the river reaches a flood stage?

We’re going to be watching the storm in all our creeks and streams obviously, but the Pajaro and the potential impact there could be very significant. So we’re going to be watching as the water levels rise and interact with the very old levee system that we gratefully got funding to have repaired, but that has not been repaired yet. So as those water levels rise Monday evening into early Tuesday, we’ll be watching that closely, and well ahead of any of those concerns we may be issuing evacuation orders. But what we really want to make sure is that we’re watching the weather forecasting and that we have the best available data to make the most informed decisions to keep our community safe.

Are there specific areas in the county that you are anticipating may have evacuation orders in the coming few days?

If the weather forecast holds, we will be issuing evacuation orders in most of our low-lying drainages — Soquel Creek, Aptos Creek, the Salsipuedes-Corralitos-Pajaro River and the San Lorenzo River. But this storm may also cause additional damages in our mountainous regions with additional landslides and slope failures, because the soils are so saturated already.

When we make a decision to issue an evacuation order, we want to make sure that there are resources available to folks who are being displaced for a place for them to stay. We always recommend the best place to stay is with family or friends out of harm's way. That's going to be the most comfortable solution for most people. But for folks who don't have those resources here locally, we're setting up shelter facilities where they can spend the night if they need to, and cots or a tent environment to try and give them a warm place to be while they're under an evacuation order.

When do you expect the worst part of the storm to be in the next few days?

Depending on the hazard, it’s most likely going to be most of the day Monday and into Tuesday. The intensity of the rainfall would be the thing that causes slope failures and landslides. This storm has some wind associated with it, and with the volume of rain forecasted, we could see some additional landslides and slope failures throughout the county. The rivers react a little bit slower, so later into the day on Monday and into Tuesday we’ll be watching river levels. So we’ll be on high alert if the weather forecast holds from Sunday night late all the way to midday Tuesday.

What are you advising residents so far in terms of storm preparations?

The best thing to do is to try and stay home, have all of your devices charged, have food that you can prepare for yourself if you're out of power for extended periods of time. Sheltering in place where it’s safe to do so is always the best solution. And there are certainly some places where it's not safe to do that. So we'll be asking those folks to try and get out of harm's way.

I’d also like to add that our Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County has opened up a relief fund donation site. So if there are folks that haven't been impacted or have the financial means to support those impacted, they are collecting monetary donations. We have not set up any other donation system for supplies. We're not accepting material things at this time.



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